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Topping As A Disabled Person

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By Lyric Seal

Topping-as-a-disabled-person

People are often surprised when I say that, for me, topping is more vulnerable than bottoming.

I remember going to a sex party with a bunch of other queer people of color, many of them sporting strap ons and saying that they weren’t interested in receiving penetration, but that they would gladly top, as that was an empowering, safer place for them. From multiple gender and racial standpoints, I deeply understand this, but it is not what my body knows. The reasons are even more complicated than perhaps I am ready to admit. But I am going to try.

Even now as I write this, I feel a welling up in my face, under cheek meeting eye. This is tear territory. I want to write you a ferocious little article, a tasty little piece, like me, but topping with a physically and visibly disabled body is a place of uncertainty and fear for me. Luckily, they say I’m brave.

When interviewed by .Mic  on the subject of being an “alt/disabled porn performer”, I was asked to speak on the issue of disabled people being desexualized by an ableist society. I told my interviewer that. as a disabled child, I was nonconsensually sexualized and yet also constantly infantilized by people around me. There are many disabled femmes (can I get an AMEN?) who know the complex plight of being a sexy baby in a lover’s or society’s eyes, whether or not we choose it.

Some identify with this; in my personal, intimate sexual life I have a Daddy. I love being topped. I love knowing I have someone wrapped around my finger. I love being taken care of. But I am not only this. I am an adult too.

I have choices. I have desire. And there is a fire in me.

When my own desire and agency tried to creep through the baleen-like filter through which I was understood by minds inside bodies not like mine–able bodied people fed on ableism with narrow understandings what my body was for–I felt like this hunger of mine was monstrous, too big for me to let out or in.

I know all too well that bottoming is not passive; even when we are touched against our will, it takes every fiber of one’s being to receive, or to not receive, psychically or physically. When I am bottoming, submitting, opening to my lover, there is that fire too, that hunger, that capacity for desire. Maybe it’s that I feel I can let loose when I am bottoming. I feel I can be a screaming hole. I feel I can be a possessed banshee. I feel I can be a taken siren/muse. When I trust what I am opening to, I can be so generous.

Perhaps it’s the performance I fear with topping. It reminds me more of dance than of song. It feels more visual. It seems it requires precision. It is only naked, or near a bed, or bench, or car, or miraculously accessible rooftop with all my clothes on, about to have sex with someone who wants me to top them, that I get such stage fright.

Socially, I’m a great top. As a wheelchair user, with a visibly disabled body in other other ways too, with the privileges of being neurotypical with a quick tongue, I learned to make speech my tool, my entry point, my point of connection and flirtation. I don’t even always know when I’m flirting; t’s my comfort place. I like to make people blush! Have since I was a teenager and all my friends were having sex with their boyfriends in private and I was having no sex but coming onto awkward boys in public

If I don’t think someone’s a charming top, I don’t like being hit on by them in an aggressive way. I’m particular about tops. I have the best one now already.

With switchy people, with subs, I’m all about the bait and switch. I’m all about the talking and dancing not leading to anything. I am hung up. I am scared. I have created a locus of control through my social interaction, in which you can view me as powerful for my words, my dancing on my own, my compliments, my insight, my tease. Physically, once we are touching, I am less confident of my abilities, or that my desire will be received, once someone feels/sees how awkward the form. What if I am too slow? Too imprecise? What if I stop for pain or discomfort?

I had a girlfriend once, who encouraged me to practice topping her, which was wonderful, and then she would embarrass me by telling new dates in front of me that I was a “big domme”. Proud parent with bad boundaries much?

It was like she was saying, EVERYONE! NEVE HAS A PERFORMANCE THEY WOULD LIKE TO SHARE! My partner, my daddy, actually does invite me to top him sometimes. And the practice is heart-altering. I become a more well-rounded me. Despite my Picasso body.

When you are learning the dance of how to top someone well, in the way they like, in the way you like it, it can take time and experimentation. It can take translation, modification. It can take making up a whole new way to move and relate to another body from scratch. Especially if you are physically disabled, if your partner is, if you both are.

I have been learning, slowly, that while there are tricks of the trade on how to top or dominate someone safely, there is no rulebook (thank goddess) on what it actually means to top someone. I am learning to take the time I need with my gimp body to top in a way that is true to me.

When you are learning a new dance, you begin slow. In fact, some bodies will only ever be able to replicate a dance slowly, and some do not replicate at all. Fuck replication. This is not to say that there are not disabled people who have topping on lock. I am not one of them! But I’m sassy as hell.

Complete Article HERE!

The Ultimate Guide to Pregnant Sex

By Lauren Katulka

Takeaway: The nine months of pregnancy bring with them a host of coital challenges, but with our handy guide you can enjoy good loving during any trimester.

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You’ve just received the happy news that you’re expecting and you’re feeling more connected to your partner than ever. Although those nine months of pregnancy can be a challenging time to be a woman, that doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice time between the sheets. Read on to discover the difficulties you might face during each trimester, and how you can overcome them to experience some of the best sex of your life.

First Trimester Fun

It wasn’t too long ago that you were getting down to business on a regular basis, but now that you’ve got a bun in your oven you might be thinking of sex less often. The first trimester can leave you exhausted and morning sickness can make you feel far from sexy.

Just know that you’re not alone. A waning libido is only natural as your body stops sending signals to pass on your genes. You’re also feeling the maternal urge to protect your tiny offspring. Even if the doctor assures you sex is safe, a mother’s instinct might have you second-guessing hanky-panky.

During the first trimester it’s good to remember that sex doesn’t have to mean intercourse. If you’re not feeling up to going all the way, perhaps you could rediscover the joys of outercourse or even a simple massage. Touching one another and talking about your desires can ensure you stay close to your partner through these challenging months. (Get some tips in Double the Fun! 5 Hot Tips on Self Touch for Two.)

You don’t have to take intercourse off the table though. Sex during pregnancy has plenty of perks, including better sleep and a feelings of wellbeing . Sex during these early months can also be really enjoyable, even if you don’t feel up to it from the outset. Allow yourself to be seduced with an open mind and you might be surprised how much fun you’ll have.

Steam It Up in the Second Trimester

Many women say their second trimester is their favorite part of pregnancy. The fatigue and morning sickness are gone and your libido has returned. Your genitals will also be constantly engorged and lubrication is increased. These changes can make you feel more open to sex and can maximize your enjoyment.

Your changing body can be a bit of a stumbling block though. A baby bump and the extra curves that come with it may take some getting used to, but it’s important to take pride in these changes. Your awesome body is building a baby! (Get some tips on body confidence in 6 Steps That’ll Help You Love Love Love Your Naked Self.)

Urinary tract infections can also curb your sexual activities for a while. Pregnant women are more likely to contract these painful problems, and they can have nasty implications for pregnancy and your sex life. Don’t ignore painful urination or cramps; see a doctor as soon as you notice these symptoms. An untreated UTI can bring on early labor, so it’s crucial that you act quickly.

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We hope you enjoyed your second trimester, because the third might be tough. That cute little baby bump has grown so large many women find that it feels impossible to get comfortable. And your estrogen and progesterone levels are at their highest.

This is the perfect time to remember the tactics you used to get through your first trimester. You might not always feel like intercourse, but sex can take many forms. Communicate about how you’re feeling so that you can stay close to your partner, even if you aren’t getting as close physically.

Oh, and with that big bump in the way, it can be difficult to get as close as you might like. Sex might seem daunting, but there are ways to work around your new body shape. Women on top and rear entry positions are ideal. See our article on safe, sizzling sex positions for pregnant women for enough inspiration to spice up this final trimester.

Your bump is also a real reminder that baby is on board, and men can struggle with this. However, doctors insist that no matter how hung your man is, his penis can’t possibly go through the cervix, amniotic sac and placenta. In simple terms, sex is totally safe for the little one (and good for you). For normal pregnancies, sex also won’t cause miscarriages or preterm labor.

And Another Thing

While sex is safe for most pregnant women, those with high-risk pregnancies should exercise caution and consult their doctor if they have any concerns. More important than sex itself is the intimacy this act can foster between new moms and dads. If you can get steamy during this time, go for it. If not, make sure you talk about your feelings and remember to show your affection in other ways. This will help couples deepen their connection with each other before the new addition to the family.

Complete Article HERE!

How to look after your penis

By Ed Noon

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The British are a nation of stoics, often too proud to admit we have a problem, and too polite to bother anyone else about it. Men are particularly bad at piping up about health issues, especially when it comes to our penises. Often, a source of embarrassment can be a simple lack of knowledge. Fortunately, the male anatomy is quite easy to understand, and learning what to say when seeing your GP can help avoid red faces. Read our guide from a working NHS doctor for how to keep your penis healthy…

Don’t use slang

The number of highly imaginative slang words that have been used to describe penises can leave patients embarrassed and doctors wondering. Keep it real and you’ll be taken seriously. Here’s a quick anatomically correct dictionary of our own for you to memorise and check off next time you’re in the mirror:

Penis and foreskin – no explanation needed.

Shaft – the main length of your penis but not including the glans (tip).

Glans/tip – the highly sensitive area at the end of the penis, usually covered by a foreskin, unless removed in an operation called a circumcision, with an opening for urine and semen to escape.

Meatus – pronounced “me-ay-tuss”, this is the medical name for that opening.

Testes – otherwise known as testicles or balls. All are acceptable.

Scrotum – this is the stretchy skin that forms a sack for your testes. A thin muscle allows the scrotum to contract, which it does so in cold conditions to maintain your sperm at a constant temperature.

Epididymis – behind and above the testes lies the area that stores the sperm made in the testes. Above the testes is a firm tube that carries your sperm from the epididymis (via the prostate which lies near your bladder, so it goes a long way) eventually out through your urethra to come out in the hole in the tip of your penis (yep, the meatus – well remembered).

Knowing just a small detail of anatomy can really take the embarrassment out of a problem when explaining things. So next time you notice that something’s not right, be confident and just tell your doctor “straight up”.

DIY penis maintenance

Many male problems don’t require the attention of a medical professional. Allow GQ to fill you in.

How to clean your penis

We often gaze in awe and talk excitedly about the nose-tingling, fungus-coated, ash-rolled, squishy goodness that is a well-stocked cheese counter. That’s not what you want people to experience when getting up close and personal with your penis. The “knob cheese” that is technically known as smegma, has a particularly vile smell and builds up when the area underneath a foreskin hasn’t been cleaned. This area should be cleaned daily (just pull back) along with the rest of your genitals, your bottom and the area in between, called the perineum. Use a mild soap as these areas can be sensitive.

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How to examine your scrotum

Testicular cancer is the most common cancer in young men. For this reason, every week you should examine each testis (the plural is testes) in turn between your finger and thumb by rolling the skin over them. The most common symptom is a lump of any size but you should book an appointment with your GP if you have any new feelings in the scrotal area.

On a lighter note, most lumps in the scrotum aren’t cancer, and if it does turn out to be cancer, it’s one of the most treatable forms of the disease. You should get to know your balls like the back of your hand.

Maintaining an erection

Erectile dysfunction, or impotence, is unfortunately common from middle age onwards and it’s caused by a narrowing of the blood vessels that pump blood to create and maintain an erection. This narrowing may occur for a number of reasons but high blood pressure, diabetes and smoking are high on the list. Giving up smoking seems like a no-brainer, and maintaining a healthy body weight and undertaking regular exercise reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes.

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Protect your penis from STIs

STIs are invisible and often give no symptoms for many years so you won’t know if you’ve just passed one on, so you should always wear a condom. Available free at GPs and sexual health clinics, they significantly reduce the risk of the transmission of STIs but they’re nowhere near as effective if they remain unopened in your wallet. There are so many easy ways to get tested for STIs – a simple fingerpick test can detect HIV, and many GP surgeries have urine pots to test for chlamydia and gonorrhoea that you can pick up and drop off discretely without even making an appointment. No excuses.

Be careful with trimming

Many of us take pleasure in keeping neat and tidy. There are no hard and fast rules about what to do here, but a sensible one is to exercise caution. Be especially careful in the craggy terrain of your scrotum if shaving, where it can be technically more challenging to not make a tiny cut in the skin – this could potentially introduce harmful bacteria which could cause cellulitis, abscesses or worse, Fournier’s gangrene (Googling not recommended).

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Penis size really doesn’t matter to women

A 2015 survey of women presented with photographs of all types and sizes of penises published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine revealed that penis length was one of the least valued attributes. “Overall cosmetic appearance” came out on top. So no need to worry about whether your penis size is above or below average. Just keep it looking good.

Use your penis to keep it healthy

Make ejaculation part of your daily routine. Here’s why: a large Harvard study of nearly 30,000 men found the risk of prostate cancer was 33 per cent lower in men who’d ejaculated at least 21 times per month, compared to those who ejaculated only 4-7 times per month. This included ejaculations during sex, masturbation and, um, “nocturnal emissions”. Time to play catch up.

Complete Article HERE!

The Long, Hard Work of Running the Only Academic Journal on Porn

In 2014, Clarissa Smith and Feona Attwood launched “Porn Studies,” the world’s first academic periodical devoted exclusively to pornography, although many of their colleagues—and anti-porn feminists—advised them against it.

Academic Journal on Porn

Clarissa Smith, a professor of sexual cultures at the University of Sunderland in the UK, is describing to me the ideal sex robot. “Maybe it wouldn’t look like a human at all,” she says. “It could be like a sleeping bag you zip yourself into and have a whole-body experience. How fabulous would that be? You could have your toes tickled and your head massaged at the same time.”

I ask if she’s seen the two-legged cyborgs from Boston Robotics that don’t fall over, even when shoved. “They kind of look like horses,” she says. “They’re not sexy.” She tells me that if she had any business acumen, she’d design her own pleasure bots. “I wouldn’t be talking about this journal.”

The journal we’ve been talking about is Porn Studies, the first academic periodical devoted exclusively to the study of pornography. Founded in 2014 by Smith and Feona Attwood, a professor in cultural studies, communication, and media at Middlesex University London, it’s since become the go-to quarterly for hot-and-heavy, peer-reviewed research on how porn is constructed and consumed around the world.

After receiving a raft of coverage from the Atlantic, the Washington Post, VICE, and, of course, the Daily Mail, nearly 250,000 people viewed the journal online over its premiere weekend. The first issue featured an article by groundbreaking film scholar Linda Williams, an essay on how porn literacy is being taught in UK schools, and a meta-analysis of porn titled “Deep Tags: Toward a Quantitative Analysis of Online Pornography”—which reads sort of like Nate Silver’s guide to PornHub. Later issues have explored topics as varied as the “necropolitics” of zombie porn to the “disposal” of gay porn star bottoms who bareback.

Porn has long been a popular field of academic research—professor Linda Williams’s seminal text on the subject, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” was first published in 1989—but its scholarly inspection has not been without controversy.

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“It has been considered a ‘despised form,'” Smith said. “But I think there are enough people around now who are approaching pornography from a whole range of viewpoints, not just asking, ‘Should it exist?’ or ‘How should we regulate it?’ but ‘What is it? Who’s in it? How does it work?'”

Before Smith became a leading expert in pornography, she was working at an ad agency and pursuing a master’s degree in women’s studies. “I sat through so many lectures about the radical feminists’ rejection of porn,” she said. Then, one day at the office, she received a press packet from two publishers who were just about to launch soft-core magazines for women.

“I was like, hang on, two publishers think it’s worth it to launch porn magazines, and yet women supposedly have no interest in this?”

Smith had friends who were into porn, she enjoyed a good Chippendales show now and then, and she’d watched as the Ann Summers sex shop in her neighborhood had transformed from someplace dark and seedy to a “bright and colorful” spot to buy sex toys.

“I saw these things happening, which, according to theory, couldn’t be happening.” She had a gut feeling that porn, too, was being misjudged.

In 1999, Smith decided to analyze For Women magazine, a relatively upmarket glossy that ran features like “Semen: a user’s guide” and “Women who sleep with strangers night after night.” The magazine, Smith argued, sought to manufacture “a space where women [could] be sexually free” by writing about things like three-ways, cuckolding fetishes, and anal sex in a way that made them seem normal. It was also primo masturbation material, offering “male bodies for female consumption” and real-life sex stories.

Academics and peers she respected tried to dissuade Smith from continuing down the porn path. “They would ask me, ‘When are you going to move on from this area into more serious study?’ They’d also tell me I was really brave.” She laughs. “I wasn’t brave, I was interested!”

For Women

When academics analyze comics, horror films, video games, or anime, it isn’t generally assumed that their scholarship constitutes a ringing endorsement of everything in their field of study. But with porn, it’s different. The topic is so “burdened with significance,” as transgender studies professor Bobby Noble once described it, it’s easy to get trapped in the debate over its existence—instead of looking at it objectively as a cultural product.

But Smith ignored the naysayers and, over the next few years, penned a number of articles with titles like, “Shiny Chests and Heaving G-Strings: A Night Out with the Chippendales” and “They’re Ordinary People, Not Aliens from the Planet Sex! The Mundane Excitements of Pornography for Women.”

She was cavorting with other porn academics and traveling to conferences when she fortuitously met Feona Attwood. “It felt like we were the only two people talking about [porn], at least in the UK,” Smith said. The pair eventually brought their idea for a porn studies journal to the multinational academic publishing house Routledge, initiating two-and-a-half years of negotiation. When, finally, the two were told their proposal for the journal had been accepted, they “sat in stupefied silence for about ten minutes,” Smith said.

Nearly as soon as Porn Studies was announced, a feminist anti-porn organization in the UK called Stop Porn Culture circulated an online petition demanding the creation of an anti-porn journal for the sake of balance. Signatories claimed the journal was akin to “murder studies” from the viewpoints of “murderers.”

Smith and Attwood believe they somewhat missed the point. “We were trying to move away from the idea that there were only two ways of thinking,” said Attwood. “Like for or against television, or for or against the novel. It’s a bizarre way of thinking, from an academic point of view.”

porn studies

At the time, the UK had recently banned a long list of hardcore sex acts from porn produced in the country, including “spanking, caning, whipping, penetration by an object ‘associated with violence,’ physical or verbal abuse (consensual or not), urination in sexual contexts, female ejaculation, strangulation, facesitting and fisting (if all knuckles are inserted).” The country’s mood wasn’t exactly sex-positive.

“We have this idea that we can just keep undesirable things out of the country,” Smith said.

That fearful attitude, naturally, extends to university campuses. “I don’t think there was ever a golden age for studying porn,” Attwood told me. “It’s always been tricky!” She says the resistance the pair encountered—and continue to encounter—is part of a “much broader” problem related to academic freedom; at the University of Houston, for example, teachers were recently told they might want to modify what they teach in case students are carrying concealed weapons.

“The social and political context we are working in at the moment as academics makes our work more precarious and dangerous in all kinds of ways that are not just about what we study,” Attwood said.

Yet the history of porn research in the United States isn’t as dramatic as you’d imagine. Linda Williams was able to teach porn with full support of her administration way back in the (H.W.) Bush years.

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“There is still such a thing as academic freedom,” Williams said nonchalantly when I asked how administrators reacted to her porny syllabi when she taught the subject at UC Irvine, in the heart of conservative Orange County, in 1992.

Back then, Williams, who’d already published a book on the subject by that point, would screen whatever porn was floating around in the cultural ether. She had her students watch gonzo porn; feminist porn (“cleaned up with lots of potted plants and no money shots”); and sadomasochist porn (“the theatrical kind…and the other kind”).

The biggest issue students had was with the gay porn, which Williams says freaked out the hetero guys—a lot. Usually, though, what students did in her classes was laugh their heads off. “That’s kind of a protective measure, because otherwise they might, you know, get horny,” she said.

When I asked Smith if she screened porn in her classes, though, I was surprised to hear that she didn’t.

“Both Feona [Attwood] and I have tenure, but that still doesn’t mean that you can do what you like. Also, I’m at a small, provincial university that is one of the post-1992 schools [formerly polytechnics or colleges of higher education in the UK], and we don’t have a very bullish attitude that we’re the elite, so I have to be aware of the university’s sensibilities, which are: Can we defend this to parents? I don’t want to cause that kind of trouble.”

For now, Smith is advising graduate students, conducting research, attending conferences, and, of course, editing Porn Studies. She says she’s most concerned about making sure the next generation doesn’t feel the same sense of shame over their sexual desires as the older people she’s interviewed in her research. “In the research that Feona and I did, one of the key things that comes through when you talk to older people about their engagements with porn [is that] people say, ‘I just wish someone had had a proper conversation with me about sex. I just wish I hadn’t felt so much shame about looking and finding bodies attractive and going looking for it. It’s taken me a long time to understand what I like sexually.’ Why do we want another generation coming up afraid of their bodies and ashamed of their desires?”

Complete Article HERE!

Scents and Sensibility

“Sexual chemistry” is more than just a way of talking about heated attraction. Subtle chemical keys actually help determine who we fall for. But here comes news that our lifestyles may unwittingly undermine our natural sex appeal.

By Elizabeth Svoboda

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Psychologists Rachel Herz and Estelle Campenni were just getting to know each other, swapping stories about their lives over coffee, when Campenni confided something unexpected: She was living proof, she said, of love at first smell. “I knew I would marry my husband the minute I smelled him,” she told Herz. “I’ve always been into smell, but this was different; he really smelled good to me. His scent made me feel safe and at the same time turned on—and I’m talking about his real body smell, not cologne or soap. I’d never felt like that from a man’s smell before. We’ve been married for eight years now and have three kids, and his smell is always very sexy to me.”

Everyone knows what it’s like to be powerfully affected by a partner’s smell—witness men who bury their noses in their wives’ hair and women who can’t stop sniffing their boyfriends’ T-shirts. And couples have long testified to the ways scent-based chemistry affects their relationships. “One of the most common things women tell marriage counselors is, ‘I can’t stand his smell,'” says Herz, the author of The Scent of Desire.

Sexual attraction remains one of life’s biggest mysteries. We might say we go for partners who are tall and thin, love to cook, or have a mania for exercise, but when push comes to shove, studies show, the people we actually end up with possess few of the traits we claim to want. Some researchers think scent could be the hidden cosmological constant in the sexual universe, the missing factor that explains who we end up with. It may even explain why we feel “chemistry”—or “sparks” or “electricity”—with one person and not with another.nice boobs

Physical attraction itself may literally be based on smell. We discount the importance of scent-centric communication only because it operates on such a subtle level. “This is not something that jumps out at you, like smelling a good steak cooking on the grill,” says Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico. “But the scent capability is there, and it’s not surprising to find smell capacity in the context of sexual behavior.” As a result, we may find ourselves drawn to the counter attendant at the local drugstore, but have no idea why—or, conversely, find ourselves put off by potential dating partners even though they seem perfect on paper.

Though we may remain partially oblivious to scent signals we’re sending and receiving, new research suggests that we not only come equipped to choose a romantic partner who smells good to us, but that this choice has profound biological implications. As we act out the complex rituals of courtship, many of them inscribed deep in our brain, scent-based cues help us zero in on optimal partners—the ones most likely to stay faithful to us and to create healthy children with us.

At first blush, the idea of scent-based attraction might seem hypothetical and ephemeral, but when we unknowingly interfere with the transmission of subtle olfactory messages operating below the level of conscious awareness, the results can be both concrete and devastating. When we disregard what our noses tell us, we can find ourselves mired in partnerships that breed sexual discontent, infertility, and even—in extreme cases—unhealthy offspring.

The Scent of Desire

When you’re turned on by your partner’s scent, taking a deep whiff of his chest or the back of her neck feels like taking a powerful drug—it’s an instant flume ride to bliss, however momentary. Research has shown that we use scent-based signaling mechanisms to suss out compatibility. Claus Wedekind, a biologist at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, created Exhibit A of this evidence by giving 44 men new T-shirts and instructing them to wear the shirts for two straight nights. To ensure that the sweat collecting on the shirts would remain “odor-neutral,” he supplied the men with scent-free soap and aftershave.

hair pullAfter the men were allowed to change, 49 women sniffed the shirts and specified which odors they found most attractive. Far more often than chance would predict, the women preferred the smell of T-shirts worn by men who were immunologically dissimilar to them. The difference lay in the sequence of more than 100 immune system genes known as the MHC, or major histocompatibility complex. These genes code for proteins that help the immune system recognize pathogens. The smell of their favorite shirts also reminded the women of their past and current boyfriends, suggesting that MHC does indeed influence women’s dating decisions in real life.

Women’s preference for MHC-distinct mates makes perfect sense from a biological point of view. Ever since ancestral times, partners whose immune systems are different have produced offspring who are more disease-resistant. With more immune genes expressed, kids are buffered against a wider variety of pathogens and toxins.

But that doesn’t mean women prefer men whose MHC genes are most different from theirs, as University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Martha McClintock found when she performed a T-shirt study similar to Wedekind’s. Women are not attracted to the smell of men with whom they had no MHC genes in common. “This might be a case where you’re protecting yourself against a mate who’s too similar or too dissimilar, but there’s a middle range where you’re OK,” McClintock says.

Women consistently outperform men in smell sensitivity tests, and they also make greater time and energy sacrifices on their children’s behalf than men do—in addition to bearing offspring, they look after them most of the time. These factors may explain why women are more discriminating in sniffing out MHC compatibility.

Men are sensitive to smell as well, but because women shoulder a greater reproductive burden, and are therefore choosier about potential mates, researchers are not surprised to find that women are also more discriminating in sniffing out MHC compatibility.

Unlike, say, blood types, MHC gene complements differ so much from one person to the next that there’s no obvious way to reliably predict who’s MHC-compatible with whom. Skin color, for instance, isn’t much help, since groups of people living in different areas of the world might happen to evolve genetic resistance to some of the same germs. “People of different ethnicities can have similar profiles, so race is not a good predictor of MHC dissimilarity,” Thornhill says.

And because people’s MHC profiles are as distinct as fingerprints—there are thousands of possible gene combinations—a potential sex partner who smells good to one woman may completely repel another. “There’s no Brad Pitt of smell,” Herz says. “Body odor is an external manifestation of the immune system, and the smells we think are attractive come from the people who are most genetically compatible with us.” Much of what we vaguely call “sexual chemistry,” she adds, is likely a direct result of this scent-based compatibility.our what?

Typically, our noses steer us in the right direction when it comes to picking a reproductively compatible partner. But what if they fail us and we wind up with a mate whose MHC profile is too similar to our own? Carol Ober, a geneticist at the University of Chicago, explored this question in her studies of members of the Hutterite religious clan, an Amish-like closed society that consists of some 40,000 members and extends through the rural Midwest. Hutterites marry only other members of their clan, so the variety in their gene pool is relatively low. Within these imposed limits, Hutterite women nevertheless manage to find partners who are MHC-distinct from them most of the time.

The few couples with a high degree of MHC similarity, however, suffered higher rates of miscarriage and experienced longer intervals between pregnancies, indicating more difficulty conceiving. Some scientists speculate that miscarriages may be the body’s way of curtailing investment in a child who isn’t likely to have a strong immune system anyway.

What’s more, among heterosexual couples, similar MHC profiles spell relational difficulty, Christine Garver-Apgar, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico, has found. “As the proportion of MHC alleles increased, women’s sexual responsiveness to their partners decreased, and their number of sex partners outside the relationship increased,” Garver-Apgar reports. The number of MHC genes couples shared corresponded directly with the likelihood that they would cheat on one another; if a man and woman had 50 percent of their MHC alleles in common, the woman had a 50 percent chance of sleeping with another man behind her partner’s back.

The Divorce Pill?

Women generally prefer the smell of men whose MHC gene complements are different from theirs, setting the stage for the best biological match. But Wedekind’s T-shirt study revealed one notable exception to this rule: women on the birth-control pill. When the pill users among his subjects sniffed the array of pre-worn T-shirts, they preferred the scent of men whose MHC profiles were similar to theirs—the opposite of their pill-free counterparts.

This dramatic reversal of smell preferences may reflect the pill’s mechanism of action: It prevents the ovaries from releasing an egg, fooling the body into thinking it’s pregnant. And since pregnancy is such a vulnerable state, it seems to activate a preference for kin, who are genetically similar to us and likely to serve as protectors. “When pregnant rodent females are exposed to strange males, they can spontaneously abort,” Herz says. “The same may be true for human females.” What’s more, some women report a deficit in sex drive when they take the pill, a possible consequence of its pregnancy-mimicking function.

The tendency to favor mates with similar MHC genes could potentially hamper the durability of pill users’ relationships in the long term. While Herz shies away from dubbing hormonal birth control “the divorce pill,” as a few media outlets have done in response to her theories, she does think the pill jumbles women’s smell preferences. “It’s like picking your cousins as marriage partners,” Herz says. “It constitutes a biological error.” As a result, explains Charles Wysocki, a psychobiologist at Florida State University, when such a couple decides to have children and the woman stops taking birth control, she may find herself less attracted to her mate for reasons she doesn’t quite understand. “On a subconscious level, her brain is realizing a mistake was made—she married the wrong guy,” he says.

“Some couples’ fertility problems may be related to the pill-induced flip-flop in MHC preferences,” Garver-Apgar adds. No one has yet collected data to indicate whether the pill has created a large-scale problem in compatibility. Still, Herz recommends that women seeking a long-term partner consider alternative birth control methods, at least until they get to know their potential significant other well and are sure they like the way he smells. “If you’re looking for a man to be the father of your child,” she says, “go off the pill before you start your search.”

If you were on the pill when you met your current partner, the situation is more complicated. Once a relationship has progressed to long-term commitment, says Herz, a woman’s perception of her partner’s smell is so intertwined with her emotional reaction to him that it could be difficult for her to assess his scent as if he were a stranger. “If she’s in love, he could smell like a garbage can and she’d still be attracted to him.”

Crossed Signals

The pill subverts a woman’s ability to sniff out a compatible mate by causing her to misinterpret the scent messages she receives. But it may warp olfactory communication channels in the other direction as well, distorting the signals she sends—and making her seem less appealing to men, an irony given that women typically take the pill to boost their appeal in a partner’s eyes.

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico and author of The Mating Mind, noticed the pill’s connection to waning male desire while studying a group of exotic dancers—women whose livelihoods depend on how sexually appealing they are to male customers. Non-pill-using dancers made about 50 percent more in tips than dancers on oral contraceptives. In other words, women who were on the pill were only about two-thirds as sexy as women who weren’t.

Why were the pill-takers in the study so much less attractive to men? “Women are probably doing something unconsciously, and men are responding to it unconsciously,” says Miller. “We just don’t know whether it has to do with a shift in their psychology, their tone of voice, or if it’s more physical, as in the kind of pheromones they’re putting out.”

The biggest earners in Miller’s study were non-pill-using dancers at the time of ovulation. Other studies have shown that men rate women as smelling best when they are at the most fertile point of their menstrual cycles, suggesting that women give off scent-based signals that broadcast their level of fecundity. “The pill might be producing cues that a woman is in the early stage of pregnancy, which would not tend to elicit a lot of male sexual interest,” Miller says. “It makes sense for men to be sensitive to that and for them not to feel the same chemistry with the woman.”

Drowning in Fragrance

The pill isn’t the only way we might confound sexual chemistry. Every day, far more people may be subverting their quest for love with soap and bottled fragrances. In ancestral times, smelling ripe was just a fact of life, absent hot showers and shampoo. This held true well into the 19th century, when the miasma of body odor in Parisian streets grew so thick that it was dubbed “The Great Stink of 1880.” Back when a person’s scent could waft across a room, a mere handshake could provide valuable information about attraction.

Since the 20th-century hygiene revolution and the rise of the personal-care industry, however, companies have pitched deodorants, perfumes, and colognes to consumers as the epitome of sex appeal. But instead of furthering our quest to find the perfect mate, such products may actually derail it, say researchers, by masking our true scent and making it difficult for prospects to assess compatibility. “Humans abuse body smell signals by hiding them, masking them, putting on deodorant,” says Devendra Singh, a psychologist at the University of Texas. “The noise-to-signal ratio was much better in primitive society.”

Miller argues that modern hygiene may be such an impediment to sexual signaling that it could explain why so many people in our culture get so physical so fast. “Hunter-gatherers didn’t have to do a lot of kissing, because they could smell each other pretty clearly from a few feet away,” Miller says. “With all the showering, scents, and soap, we have to get our noses and mouths really up close to people to get a good idea of their biochemistry. People are more motivated to do a lot more kissing and petting, to do that assessment before they have sex.” In other words, the need to smell our mates—and the comparative difficulty of doing so in today’s environment of perfumes and colognes—may actually be driving the sexual disinhibition of modern society.

Scents and SensibilityOther scientists counter that odor detection is a bit subtler. For one thing, it’s possible we select store-bought scents to complement our natural odorprints, rather than mask them entirely: One study found that people with similar MHC profiles tend to go for the same colognes. And Garver-Apgar points out that in spending hours together each day, partners have ample opportunity to experience each other sans artificial scents. “Once you’re in a close enough relationship,” she says, “you’re going to get a real whiff at some point.”

Scents and Sensibility

There’s no way to know whether couples who shell out thousands of dollars to fertility clinics—and those who struggle to make a relationship work because “the chemistry just isn’t there”—suffer MHC incompatibility. We might never know, since a multitude of factors contributes to every reproductive and romantic outcome. But we can, at least, be cognizant of the importance of natural scent.

“Scent can be a deal breaker if it’s not right, just like someone being too stupid or unkind or short,” says Miller. Nevertheless, smell isn’t the be-all and end-all of attraction, but one of a constellation of important factors. Armed with knowledge of how scent-based attraction operates, we have some power to decide how much priority we want to accord it. Is it more important to be with the partner who smells amazing and with whom you have great chemistry, or with the one who may not attract you quite as much on a physical level but is honest and reliable?

“People tend to treat this as an either-or situation: Either we’re completely driven by pheromones, like moths, or we’re completely in charge of our own destiny,” University of Chicago psychologist McClintock says. “But it’s not a wild idea that both factors are involved.” While people like Estelle Campenni have reaped untold benefits by trusting their scent impressions, it’s ultimately up to us how highly we value what our noses tell us.—Elizabeth Svoboda

Follow Your Nose

How to put your nose to work in choosing a partner—or evaluating an existing one.

Think twice about opting for the pill if you’re seeking a long-term partner. The first few weeks of a relationship are critical to assessing compatibility, so make sure your nose is up to the task.

Try a fragrance-free week. Eliminate factors that could throw your nostrils off. Have your partner set aside scented shower gels in favor of fragrance-free soap, nix the cologne, and use only unscented deodorant.

Keep smell’s importance in context. If you sometimes find your partner’s scent off-putting, don’t panic; it doesn’t necessarily mean fertility issues are in your future. Connections between MHC compatibility and conception problems have yet to be confirmed in large-scale population studies, so don’t plunk down big bucks for MHC testing at this point.

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